Brutal police counterattacks send recruits to rebels' side

In village after village, the tales of police brutality take on a numbing similarity.

In the standard scenario, police arrive at the home of a suspected Maoist supporter. The villager is taken to jail and severely beaten. A few days later, the family is informed that the villager was shot dead in an "encounter" with police.

It's a scenario that has been repeated, with slight variations, hundreds of times in the past six years, as Nepali police struggle to squelch a violent "people's war" by Maoist insurgents. While both sides bear responsibility for the killings, human rights groups say it is clear that the government bears the greater burden.

"Of the 1,600 people killed since the insurgency began, Maoists have killed about 300 and the rest were killed by policemen," says Padma Ratna Tuladhar, president of the Forum for the Protection of Human Rights in Kathmandu. "Now the government has decided to unleash a paramilitary force.... Everyone understands the government's position, but the fear is that it may incite civil war."

The Maoists count their greatest support in the remote areas of western and midwestern Nepal, far from the name-brand mountain peaks like Everest and Annapurna that attract millions in tourist dollars each year. It is there that farmers point to promised irrigation projects that remain unbuilt; to electricity projects that remain unfunded; and to the often thuggish behavior of local policemen, often the only government presence these Nepali farmers have ever known.

Consider the case of Subhadra Sapkota, a 15-year-old dancer from Naubise. Two years ago, she and her group performed in Kathmandu to build public support for the Maoist rebels. After the performance, the guesthouse where the group was staying began to burn. Witnesses say the fire was set by police. When the troupe fled the burning building, witnesses say, they were gunned down by police.

Now Subhadra's 10-year-old sister, Sangeeta, says she will join her sister in the revolution someday. "I want to carry a gun too," she says. "I want to kill those who killed my sister."

Human rights workers say the level of anger among Nepali farmers is not unjustified. Some suspected Maoist sympathizers, targeted by police who had little evidence, have only hardened their support for the rebels. Comrade Pratap, once a very visible member of his college's young Maoist student wing, was arrested about five years ago, but he escaped.

In retaliation, his younger brother was jailed. His younger sister was also arrested. She was released, she says, after being gang-raped by police. Today, she is chairwoman of the Maoists women's wing.

Indeed, the most virulent of the new converts are women. Some, like Kalpana Newpana, are attracted to the policy of gender equality. "Our society is basically exploitative of women," she shouts over a crackling loudspeaker at a rally of 5,000 in Mankha village, a few miles from Naubise. "They will never give us any rights, unless we take them. The only way to do that is to organize, and to carry the gun."

Already, Maoism has made itself felt in small cultural ways. In Maoist-controlled villages, for instance, the traditional greeting of namaste, with hands held palm to palm in front of one's face, has been replaced with a firm handshake and a pumped fist. The handshake equalizes genders and forces members of all castes in this Hindu-majority nation to come in contact. "I need equality," says Januka Parajuli, a mother of four from Bhaisedarla village, near Mankha. "A few years ago, a woman couldn't raise her voice in the village, because men didn't like to hear our opinions."

The support for Maoists in rural Nepal breaks the old rules about women being the strongest supporters of peace, because they know the price of war. Laxmi Dangal, who traveled several hours on foot to attend the Maoist rally in Mankha, says she wants her own sons to fight. Asked if she worries about her sons' safety, she pauses and digs her thumbnail into a wooden fencepost. "Most of the women in my village are sending their sons to war, so why not me?" she responds. "Everyone has to die one day."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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